Find the Best Background Music for Your Store

How the right in-store music mix can boost customer loyalty—and sales

Music for retail stores has come a long way since the days of cheesy, easy-listening “elevator music” or staticky FM radio shot through with blaring commercials and DJ patter. In an era when consumers are seeking engaging and interactive in-store experiences, creating a unique aural atmosphere for your showroom is as important as choosing the right lighting fixtures and display cases.

“Music is a wonderful social facilitator,” says Danny Turner, global senior vice president of creative programming at Mood Media, an Austin, Texas–based company that provides music programs for retailers. “Music as a soundtrack often will take an environment that’s very harsh and sterile and convert it into something that’s warm and engaging.”

As a result, customers often choose to linger.

“The more you can please the brain with sensory experiences, that helps make the customer more comfortable and encourages them to spend more time in the store,” says Shane O’Neill, vice president at Toledo, Ohio–based Fruchtman Marketing.

Research backs this up: A study commissioned last year by Mood Media found that shoppers spent an average of six minutes longer in stores when all of their senses were engaged, increasing sales by 10%.

According to retail consultants, marketing experts, and audiophile jewelers, there are some key tips and tactics to bear in mind as you create and cultivate a background music presence to keep customers in the store and put browsers in the right frame of mind to become buyers.

Jailhouse Rock

Not to be a buzzkill, but before you start jamming, remember: It’s illegal to just play tunes from your phone via Spotify, Pandora, satellite radio, Apple Music, or any of the other streaming services—even if you’re paying for a subscription. You can chance it, but you risk paying a hefty fine if you get caught.

“People don’t realize music licensing for business is very different than licensing for consumers,” says Andrea Hill, president and CEO of Chicago-based Hill Management Group. “You can’t just play your own playlists, and you can’t listen to a consumer-facing streaming service.”

The reason, Hill explains, is that the subscription you’re paying for is based on the presumption that you’re enjoying that music for your own personal use, and the fee you pay covers licensing for that use only. Yes, this includes even CDs and digital media files you’ve purchased.

If your store is less than 2,000 square feet, you are allowed to play terrestrial (i.e., AM/FM) radio without needing to jump through any hoops, but experts argue against this. You won’t have any control over the music—jangly earworms and potentially inappropriate lyrics are two pitfalls—and you’ll be subject to frequent commercials, maybe even for your competitors.

Most of the big streaming services now sell business subscriptions on their own or through affiliates. Pandora, for instance, offers its business subscription through Mood Media, and in November 2019 Apple collaborated with Redmond, Wash.–based PlayNetwork to create Apple Music for Business. Costs for these services generally start in the neighborhood of $25–$30 a month.

There are also services that cater to retailers, offering everything from build-your-own playlist options to curated sonic landscapes, with starting costs similar to those for the streaming services. (Along with Mood Media and PlayNetwork, SoundMachine and Cloud Cover Music are big players in the retail music space.)

Setting Tone and Tempo

“What you want to look for is ensuring that the tonality of the music you’re ­selecting is commensurate with the experience,” Turner says. “If it’s a very high-end jeweler with a consultative approach and a personalized, bespoke service, I would select music that’s slightly introspective with a certain sense of refinement.”

Note that tempo affects the perception of time. “Slower music tends to make people linger,” Hill says. “This is why music in restaurants is often fast-paced; management wants to turn over tables quickly.”

In general, Hill says, slower is better, but there are times when you might want to steal restaurateurs’ hurry-up tactics. “If it’s Christmas season, and if you notice that all of a sudden people are buying lower-priced items and your order value is going down, then you need more purchases to make up the gap. Then, it might make sense to speed up the tempo a bit.”

At Twist, which has stores in Portland, Ore., and Seattle, co-owner Paul Schneider says he likes “to up the rhythm a bit and make it a little stronger around Christmas.

“I don’t want it to feel like background ­music,” he adds. “I want it to be integrated into the environment.”

Reflecting Your (Store’s) Style

As much as you want your music to be a reflection and an extension of your brand, that doesn’t necessarily mean picking music that you like listening to while cooking dinner or playing sudoku. 

“I want to create a spa-like feeling,” says Jarilyn Lim, owner of Jarilyn Jewelry in Carmel-by-the-Sea, Calif. “My shop is more than a ­jewelry shop. It’s like a gallery. That spa music makes [customers] feel uplifted and relaxed at the same time.” On the weekends, Lim says, she’ll switch to more upbeat fare, such as light jazz from artists like Kenny G.

“I’m a big music person, so every song strikes a chord,” says Andrea Riso, proprietor at Sacramento, Calif.–area Talisman Collection Fine Jewelers. “I spend a lot of time at home at night and in the morning making playlists.”

Riso pairs playlists with seasons, local events (e.g., country music when the rodeo is in town)—even individual clients. “I’m friends with a lot of our customers, and I pay attention to the concerts they attend and I make playlists of the music they like,” she says. “Geographically and culturally speaking, you have to look to your audience.”

No Cussin’—and No Cheatin’

Obviously, explicit language is a big no-no; the services offering retail soundscapes promise clean lyrics, which a regular streaming service can’t always guarantee. But there’s another consideration, especially if you cater to the wedding market. 

“I try to play love songs and not play breakup music,” Riso says, “and there’s a shocking amount of breakup songs and cheating lyrics”—obviously not a great way to help your customers kindle those romantic feelings.

Turner even suggests jewelers occasionally forgo lyrics entirely. “If there are consultations going on, maybe you want to stay away from vocals, versus playing instrumental versions of songs,” he says. “When you’re looking at those really intimate consultations, you don’t want to be combating the music.”

(Illustration by Kolchoz)

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